Why the Leafs’ top-line reunion could pay dividends against Columbus

The Toronto Maple Leafs have been back to skating and practicing in “Stage 3” this week, and with that has come a favourite past time for this city – freaking out about practice lines. I’m not going to lie – even as someone still watching with baited breath given the health circumstances behind this return to play, the first wave of roster arguments made everything feel real.

One notable combination that drew the attention of many came on the first line. These past few days of drills and scrimmages have featured a once-constant trio at the top of the lineup, as Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander lined up with each other.

This line is one that still feels very familiar to this day, but actually hasn’t seen a lot of time together. According to data from Evolving Hockey, the trio has played just 36 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together over the past two years – likely even less than that when you account for line change overlaps and spill over from powerplays.

Both years seem reflective of short leashes, with less than a game or two’s worth of minutes in each case. That they were outscored 3-0 in this stretch likely did no favours to the reunion experimentation, leading to both Babcock and Keefe to look elsewhere for their goals.

With that said, the group has, historically, fed off of each other, getting similar or better on-ice shares in goals, expected goals, and shot attempts over the long haul. There is an interesting pattern at play insofar that Matthews produces a little bit better away from both players (slightly better with Hyman this year), but still gets a better overall goal share while with them.

My guess here would be that this has a lot to do with the play style of the line, which is where a lot of it’s value comes from. Under both coaches, the Leafs organization has built its forward lines around archetypes, trying to get a playmaker, a goal scorer, and what I like to call a “displacer” – others might prefer forechecker or “worker bee” for puck retrievals and distribution. This allows for a skilled, fast, and yet still heavy cycle, which eventually pushes itself to the front of the net.

Because these are collective group efforts, including the trio and the defencemen, points tend to be a little more randomly distributed compared to more direct, rush-based plays, where one or two players control the set play and it’s success guarantees them a spot on the scoresheet. Perhaps not coincidentally, Matthews’ top 5-on-5 point production rates (besides John Tavares, who is paired with Matthews as a hail mary) tend to be highest with straight line players of varying talent levels like Patrick Marleau, Kasperi Kapanen, and Mitch Marner, who can link directly with him.

The Leafs aren’t focused on winning any one player the Art Ross Trophy, however – they’re focused on winning a Best-of-5 series against the Columbus Blue Jackets – a well-coached, defensively stringent team with solid, but unproven goaltending. Columbus’ huge strength this year has come in the shot quality they’ve been able to limit in front of the goal mouth, particularly from the top of their lineup.

Loading up what might be Toronto’s best line at driving close-range scoring opportunities of the modern era, both individually and as a collective, seems to be a shrewd strategy to press the issue against an opponent that specializes in that strength. It also allows for another line to sneak up while playing more of a rush dynamic (say, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and someone like Ilya Mikheyev, Kasperi Kapanen, or maybe even Nick Robertson if he cracks the lineup), keeping the opposing group on their toes.

While this one move isn’t a game changer, it appears to be one that could suffocate their opposition’s strengths, by leaning on some strength’s of Toronto’s own. It’s also a reunion that will carry lots of goodwill within the city, as the Hyman-Matthews-Nylander trio marked a new beginning for the organization when they emerged in 2016/17. While there is no guarantee the move works, it’s very sensible on the surface and is something that people have been waiting to see again for a long time.

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